if you want to see only the highlights in a visit that would take about one hour we have developed this guide to help you see the most important highlights of the museum.
This guide is also designed to give you a good perspective of the depth of time Greek history covers. If you want to know more about the art of Greece, visit the Greek Art page, and our sister site ancient-greece.org.
From the main entrance, get your tickets and walk to the large room opposite the main entrance. This is the Mycenaean era artifacts room which we will visit a bit later. For now, find the door (left) that houses the Neolithic art and artifacts.
Next: Exit the Neolithic room and walk straight ahead to the door opposite that leads to the Cycladic civilization artifacts
"Cycladic" was a Bronze age civilization that flourished mainly in the Cyclades islands in the middle of the Aegean.
We will see more exquisite Cycladic art later when we visit the second floor "Thera" collection, but for now contemplate the nature and disposition of the people who lived 5000 years ago in the Greek islands. They were a joyous culture with deep religious convictions. Most of the statuettes exhibited in this room and elsewhere were elegant offerings found in their remote islands cemeteries, mostly in the island of Keros.
Don't miss: The "Harp Player" and the "drinker" statuettes.
Next: Exit the room and walk to your right through the main Mycenaean exhibition
Note the big gap between the dates of the Cycladic and Mycenaean eras here. It's because all Minoan Civilization (2600-1200 BCE) artifacts are mostly exhibited in Crete, and the most important ones in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum.
Mycenae was the first Hellenic culture and the first mainland European advanced civilization. Most of the legends you have read or heard about, like the Trojan War, originated in Mycenaean culture. The most important artifacts in this exhibition are from the excavations at Mycenae and other powerful centers of the era.
The gold objects are funerary offerings and denote powerful and very wealthy cultural centers. The rein of the Mycenaeans ended rather abruptly and mysteriously around 1100 and Greece entered what is known as the Dark Ages.
When you finish enjoying the Mycenaean artifacts, exit to the lobby and move to the rooms to your right. From there we will circumnavigate the museum and move through the rooms in a mostly chronological route. You will need to show your ticket to the guards again.
Next: The Archaic Era
The next three rooms (and two more to the right) host a plethora of art and artifacts from the Dark Ages, the Geometric and Orientalizing eras, and you will notice a logical progression in the development of the figurative statues as you move from one room to the next. Pay attention how the human body appears to progress into more and more naturalistic characteristics and poses from now until we reach the Roman rooms in the end of our tour.
After you go through the first three rooms, you will enter a long hall with some of the most exquisite Kouros statues on pedestals. In this room you can clearly see the refinement of the human form from geometric suggestions (Sounion Kouros) to more realistic descriptions of fluid muscles and bones (Aristodikos Kouros - the one staring at you as you walk toward the next period: The classical era. Besides the rapid development toward realism, also pay attention to the "smiley" faces and the lightness of the emotional disposition of the statues. We will associate this with the face expressions in the next room.
Don't miss: In the first three rooms see the Kore Frasikleia and the Sounion Kouros. In the long hall admire Kroisos and Aristodikos Kouroi statues.
Next: The Classical statues
The classical era is associated with the most important contributions of the Greek civilization to the world. The first century of this era is known as the "Golden Age" and the change is reflected in the art you will see in the next few rooms.
Note the attention to detail on the human bodies, and contemplate how it reflects the newly discovered concept for this world: the importance of the individual human being as an intelligent part of nature. Man became the center of the world for ancient Greeks during this era. You can't miss the Zeus of Artemision bronze statue in the middle of the long exhibition space, but it's worth spending time enjoying the details of the newly discovered human body as a system of bones and muscles.
You will note that the smiles have now turned into more somber expressions on the faces of the statues. The Archaic era was a period of rapid expansion and cultural development when Greeks colonized the entire Mediterranean and the Black sea. Perhaps the smiles are reflective of a feeling of limitlessness and vigorous extroversion.
The beginning of the Classical era coincides with the major external threat of a Persian invasion and an almost-certain annihilation. The early period is considered the "Severe" period of Classical art where the facial expression reflect a more introverted and pensive disposition, often interpreted as the result of the Persian Wars.
But the somber expression of all Classical art is also the result of a deeply felt idea Greeks developed where "civilized" humans show absolute control over their emotions. Emotional depictions were not coveted in the Classical era when Logic and Rationality dominated all aspects of cultural development.
This elevation of themselves into superior "civilized" entities is well reflected in the art you see in these rooms. It's reflected in the facial expressions and also in the perpetual perfection in all the statues: perfect bodies in the prime of their lives. This very concept that pushed their civilization to it's zenith has been the point of intense criticism four thousand years later by scholars who prefer to promote an "all inclusive" view of humanity.
The Greeks themselves moved to the other end of the spectrum within a couple hundred years of the Classical era as we'll see toward the end of this tour in the Hellenistic art rooms.
Don't miss: Zeus of Artemision.
Next: A detour through the Bronze, Egyptian, and Stathatos Collections
The bronze collection of the National Museum of Athens is one of the largest in the world, and somehow is easy to miss if you are following the crowds. When you exit the first Classical room (the one with Zeus in the middle), look to your left and you will see a door leading to the Bronze collection.
In the next five rooms you'll have the opportunity to see fascinating artifacts from every day life, as well as some more exquisite art made with bronze. Artifacts span several centuries, from Archaic to Roman, and range from every day objects like clothes buckles, medical instruments, musical instruments, chariots, weapons, and statuettes of every kind.
Most fascinating of all is the Antikethera Mechanism, a mysterious object that took half a century to recognize as the world's first computer.
While there are plenty of museums around the world that host Egyptian Art, if you have the time, you can visit the two rooms dedicated to Egyptian art, and next to them a room exhibiting artifacts from someone by the name of Stathatos. If you don't have the time, you might want to leave both of these collections for another visit.
Don't miss: The Antikethera Mechanism, the display of medical instruments.
Next: Either the temporary collection or up the stairs to the second floor.
The National museum curates thematic collections of Ancient Greek Art, and most are well worth the visit. They are rare occasions where some of the art in these exhibitions come together under one roof, so reserve some time to browse through these rooms as you exit the Bronze Collection rooms (right across the staircase on your left).
Walk up the wide staircase you see on your left as you exit the Bronze collection rooms and find the Thera collection. They house artifacts from the Cycladic and Bronze eras found in the excavations in Akrotiri in Santorini. Akrotiri is a Bronze Age town that was buried by volcanic ash when the Thera volcano erupted in the 17th century BCE. Same predicament as the better promoted Pompeii in Italy, except 1600 years earlier.
As you walk through the exhibition you will probably agree that the artifacts speak of a joyous and very advanced civilization.
Don't miss: The large frescoes from Akrotiri at the very back of the exhibition.
Option: If you have the the time, walk the second floor to admire the most extensive collection of ancient Greek pottery, and a small room with gold jewelry.
Next: Down the stairs and back toward the late Classical and Hellenistic sculptures.
Now we'll pick up where we left off when we entered the Bronze Collection rooms: the continuity and development of Greek statues and ideas.
When you walk down the stairs from the second floor move directly ahead through the long hallway and toward the large statue of the Boy Jockey and the Horse that you see a the end. Spend sometime walking around the amazingly dynamic statue and think what a huge change in disposition it is compared with the earlier Archaic statues you saw, and also compare the swift movement of the horse in space with the Zeus of Artemision, or even with the other statues around this room. There is a clear emphasis on movement and an incredible attention to detail here and more emphasis on the "dramatic" which is the trademark of the later Hellenistic art.
Option: We skipped three main rooms of Classical art which you can go back and see if you have the time. But if you are only after the highlights, move on with our tour.
Next: Late Classical (move to your right as you face the front of the Boy Jockey statue).
Move through the first three rooms toward the large exhibition space and turn right. The space is dominated by the beautiful Youth of Antikethera statue in the middle, but you will also enjoy the Youth of Marathon statue on your right as you enter the area. There is a host of other later Classical statues in the room and you can probably decipher the refinement in realism and the more interesting and challenging poses and themes here.
Next: The Hellenistic Era
As you enter the next two rooms, you will notice the gradual change in scale and thematic preferences of this era. This is the age that begins with the death of Alexander the Great and a time when Hellenic civilization escaped the narrow city-state borders to become more cosmopolitan in large metropolitan cities that span a huge area, from India to the Mediterranean. You will note an emphasis on expressive poses, playful compositions, and emotions reflected in the facial expressions.
Take a moment in front of this latter, very playful composition of the beautiful goddess attempting to slap the brute satyr with her sandal, and compare it with one of the first statues you saw in the Archaic room era: Kore Frasikleia. The transformation of Greek culture through the five hundred years that separate these two statues will become evident.
Next: The Roman statues
Move through the last four rooms of this tour to witness the influence Greek art had on the Roman empire that began annexing Greece from the middle of the 2nd century BCE (completed with the triumph of Octavian (Augustus) over the last Hellenistic Queen Cleopatra and her Roman lover, Mark Anthony in 32 BCE.
Early on, Roman art differs very little from Hellenistic art, and you are probably familiar with the term Greco-Roman. While the Romans took over Greece militarily, the Greeks took over the Romans culturally! One change you will notice as you go through this collection is the heavier emphasis on accuracy in realism, meaning that there is no need to idealizing any longer. This is more evident in the room with all the Roman portraits where every imperfection of a person's face is faithfully reproduced on the statue. This is something that you would never see in the earlier centuries of Greek Art.
Don't miss: the statue of the Hermaphrodite and the portraits gallery.
Next: Exit to the main lobby.
In this tour you walked through about 3000 years worth of history and art. As you leave the museum you will probably have a better appreciation for both ancient culture and our own one.
Many of the ideas forged in ancient Greece are still with us today, and the way we think and act, especially those of us in the "Western civilization", were planted and pruned by the same people who produced the artifacts you enjoyed during this tour.
The Italian Renaissance and the later Neo-Classical architectural style is a good example of how influential ancient Greek Art and ideas have been throughout the next couple of millennia
Athens has a lot more ancient art and culture to offer, so if you stay for a few days, visit our Athens guide for more ideas.